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Conflict Weekly
Protests in China and France, and post-earthquake crises in Turkey and Syria

  IPRI Team

Conflict Weekly #163, 16 February 2023, Vol.4, No.7
An initiative by NIAS-IPRI and India Office of the KAS

Avishka Ashok, Madhura Mahesh and Nityashree RB

China: Protests against medical insurance system highlights societal frustrations

In the news
On 15 February, videos and photos of a protest in Wuhan went viral after hundreds of pensioners protested against changes to the health benefits of the elderly. China’s social media users shared glimpses of civilians protesting, chanting slogans and singing songs outside Zhongshan Park despite the police presence. Another protest was recorded in Guangzhou and Dalian after the elderly noticed significantly lower balances in their bank accounts, hinting at a cut to their medical benefits. The authorities explained that the changes to the public health insurance system may vary in different regions but it aims to bring more services under the system while cutting down on individual subsidies.
 
Issues at large
First, the change in the public health insurance system. In September 2021, the State Council adopted the 14 th Five-Year Plan for National Medical Security. The Communist Party of China (CPC) aimed at improving the medical insurance system to include more people under its medical services and drugs. The insurance is the largest in the world; increasing its coverage from 1.36 billion people (13 th Five-Year Plan: 2016-2020) to the entire Chinese population of 1.42 billion (2021). During the executive meeting in 2021, Premier Li promoted the new plan by highlighting its capability to make medical services more accessible and affordable.
 
Second, the challenges to the new medical insurance system. In Wuhan, the authorities introduced reforms to transfer capital from the mandatory health savings plan to an outpatient insurance fund managed by the state. The reforms were enforced from 1 February and led to the first protest on the issue on 8 February. The reforms were introduced to reduce the burden on the state’s healthcare plan which suffered substantially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though the health insurance fund witnessed a fivefold increase in 2021, it has been struggling and had to dip into people’s personal spending accounts and mandatory savings accounts. The surge in accounts resulted in temporary relief as the authorities could shift the capital from the younger users to the elderly who spent more on medical expenses. However, with the new reform, the government can use the capital to fund the medical expenses of everyone, regardless of their bank balance. China is also dealing with a quickly ageing population which is expected to further increase the strain on the insurance system. This is a cause of concern for the able-bodied younger generation who will have borne the brunt of the insurance system.
 
Third, the shifting nature of protests in China. In the months after the withdrawal of the zero-COVID policy of the CPC, there have been numerous protests on a wide variety of issues such as fireworks ban, the crumbling property sector, delay in wages, unfair dismissal at the workplace, and more. These protests are viewed in China as the ones which were able to produce a positive outcome from the authorities.
 
In perspective
After the withdrawal of the strict COVID restrictions due to the mass public unrest and protests, there is a change in the nature of China’s social behaviour wherein the people are hopeful of bringing change through public displays of dissatisfaction and frustration. However, it is unclear if all future protests will result in a similar positive outcome as the withdrawal of the zero-COVID policy did.
 
The increasing number of protests and mass unrests also pose a challenge to President Xi Jinping’s third term as the leader of the country and the CPC. The protests against the health insurance system therefore come at a crucial time for the CPC and Xi Jinping. Thus, there is a higher possibility for the protests to be crushed by the authorities.
 
Lastly, the strain on the healthcare system is a serious challenge for the CPC and is bound to hold a larger presence in China’s politics and social structure in the future due to the increasing number of elderly population in the country. The declining birth rate further adds to the problem.


France: Continued protests against pension reform

In the news
On 16 February, around 1.3 million protestors took to the streets of France to protest for the fifth day against new pension reforms. This was the lowest turnout since the protests began. According to the French Interior Ministry, 963,000 protesters protested against the pension reforms on the fourth day of protests.  The CGT Union said that around 500,000 people alone protested in Paris, higher than the number of protesters on 7 February.
 
The protests are led by eight main unions who said that if the government remains "deaf" to their demands, a major strike would be called on 7 March which would "bring France to a standstill.” CGT Union leader Philippe Martinez, said "the ball is in the court of the president and the government to determine if the movement intensifies and hardens or if they take into account the current mobilisation.”
 
On the same day, Paris Orly Airport air traffic controllers staged an unannounced strike which led to several flight cancellations. The unions representing Paris RATP public transport system workers called for rolling strikes from 7 March.   
 
Issues at large
First, Macron’s proposed pension reform. On 10 January, French Prime Minister  Elisabeth Borne introduced the new pension reforms to “balance” the pension system. The pension reforms were featured in President Emmanuel Macron presidential election campaign and are based on the September 2022 Pension Advisory Council report. Borne outlined that the new reforms would raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 by 2030, increasing the age by three months per generation. The reforms will also accelerate the Touraine reform implementation which increases the required years of service from 42 to 43 years by 2027. Borne also announced that the government will be increasing the minimum pension wage to EUR 1,200. 
 
Second, the Pension Advisory Council report. In September 2022, France’s Pension Advisory Council released a report where it outlined that the pension finances will decrease “significantly” between 2023 and 2027. It added that the pension system will reach a deficit of around four per cent of GDP or more than EUR 10 billion per year. At the same time, the report outlined that the system recorded a surplus in 2021 and 2022 with the latter amounting to EUR 3.2 billion. It said: “The results of this report do not support the claim that pensions spending is out of control.”
 
Three, previous protests over pension reforms. Since 10 January, there have been three protests with the first protest held on 19 January. On 19 January, the first day of protest took place nationwide with the unions saying that around 2 million people participated in the protests. Subsequent protests took place on 31 January and 07 February where the unions saw an increase in the number of protesters in Paris. Previous attempts to introduce pension reforms in 1993, 2003, 2010 and 2019 also witnessed protests. In 2019, Macron announced plans to reform the pension system which resulted in a protest by 30 unions from 5 December to 25 January 2020 after which it was shelved due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 
 
In perspective
First, France's ageing population. Since the beginning of the 21 century, France’s population has been ageing, thereby increasing the burden on the youth. The protests saw increased participation by the youth. These new reforms will further increase the burden on the youth and also on the aged population who are still in the workforce.
 
Second, a larger impact on France’s social justice system. One of Macron’s reforms includes cost-cutting which will aid in “balancing” the pension system. This will also bring in additional revenue which can be used to finance other projects in Macron in line with the EU. Many protesters have questioned the impact of these reforms on Frances’s justice system. 


Turkey-Syria earthquake: Inadequate aid and humanitarian crisis

In the news
On 9 February, Greece sent 36 rescue workers to the earthquake-hit Turkey despite being at odds for decades. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mosokakis, addressing a European Union conference in Brussels, assured that they would play a leading role in aiding Turkey.
 
On 12 February, the Turkish government issued 113 arrest warrants after declaring that it would investigate the poor quality of infrastructure and officials responsible for it.
 
On 14 February, the Syrian government opened two more border crossings after the earthquake damaged the Bab-al Hawa opening, which was used by the UN. The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged Syria to open border crossings especially to aid northwestern Syria, predominantly controlled by President Bashar al-Assad's dissenters.
 
On 15 February, the United Kingdom provided a special General Trade License to organizations involved in humanitarian aid in Turkey and Syria. Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met Foreign Minister of Armenia and appreciated the latter’s timely help. The Foreign Ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Jordan Foreign Minister visited Damascus. Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim met with the Turkish President, Tayyip Recep Erdogan. Ukraine sent 88 rescue workers to Turkey and Cuba sent medics to the affected areas of Turkey and Syria. Saudi Arabia sent its first aid plane to Syria.
 
On February 16, Turkey estimated the death toll had increased to 36,187 and Syria and the UN estimated the death toll in Syria to be 5800. Meanwhile, Qatar sent 10,000 mobile housing units to the quake-hit areas in both countries.
 
Issues at large
First, inadequate aid to northwestern Syrian territory. Syria has already been ravaged by a decade-long civil war, infrastructure damage, and a widespread cholera outbreak. Despite the opening of borders, there is less medical help coming into the quake-hit zones in Syria. Search and rescue teams are inadequate to work along with the Syrian Civil Defense volunteers, the White Helmets.
 
Second, the internal displacement and humanitarian crisis. In Turkey, people are residing in tents, playgrounds, and roads even when temperatures are as low as minus nine degree celsius. The UNHCR says 5.3 million people are in desperate need of shelter assistance. The earthquake has damaged several water systems in both countries, thereby making acquiring water for drinking and sanitation difficult.
 
Third, the anti-Syrian sentiment in Turkey. According to the UNHCR, Turkey is home to 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Following the earthquake, anti-Syrian sentiments are increasing across quake-hit towns and cities, especially in Antakya; Syrians are accused of looting. On social media, phrases such as “We don’t want Syrians”, and “No longer welcome” are viral.
 
Fourth, the irresponsibility of authorities. In Turkey, the response by the Disaster and Energy management presidency (AFAD) to the earthquake was late. The government took down Twitter for 12 hours and arrested building contractors desperately, to cover up their irresponsibility.
 
In perspective
In Syria, aid delivery is a challenge as on the one hand, the government has weaponized aid and on the other, dissenters refuse the assistance. In some places acquiring water for sanitary purposes is negligent. It is a crisis inside a crisis in Syria. With the prevailing consequences of the civil war, the earthquake has led to increased homelessness and a massive humanitarian crisis.
 
In Turkey, the 2018 amnesty which allowed the construction and licensing of buildings not built abiding by the safety measures shows Turkey’s ambitions for growth by any means. If this trend continues, the quality of reconstruction and rehabilitation will be worse.


Also, from around the World
Avishka Ashok, Abigail Fernadez, Akriti Sharma, Apoorva Sudhakar, Anu Maria Joseph, Femy Francis, Harini Madhusudan and Padmashree Anandhan 
 
East and Southeast Asia
China: Foreign Ministry accuses US of flying intelligence-gathering balloons over Tibet and Xinjiang
On 15 February, China's Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin accused the US of flying high-altitude balloons over Xinjiang and Tibet and warned that the country would take measures against any act that undermines its sovereignty. China also accused the US of flying balloons over the airspace without prior permission. Wang said: "Without the approval of relevant Chinese authorities, it has illegally flown at least 10 times over China’s territorial airspace, including over Xinjiang, Tibet and other provinces." On the same issue, Japan's senior defence policy maker also highlighted the need for Tokyo and Taipei to share intelligence about possible aerial threats.
 
China: Hong Kong records third consecutive decline in population; but observes slower pace of decline
On 16 February, the Census and Statistics Department released its latest data and revealed that the pace of decline of the population in Hong Kong had slowed down as the city reopened after years of lockdown. In the second half of 2022, the population declined by 12,900 people. The figure dropped impressively compared to the first six months of 2022, where a decline of 55,400 people was recorded. The city has also recorded a large-scale emigration. In 2021, 9,400 departures were observed. However, in 2022, over 60,000 residents chose to move out of the city.
 
Japan: Ariel objects to be shot down if found threatening
On 14 February, the Self Defence Forces of Japan announced that it would shoot down aerial objects regardless of their origin. This comes after Japan accused China over a spy balloon that flew over their airspace thrice in 2019. Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamda stated that the SDF will be allowed to shoot down the object if it threatens air traffic or violates Japan’s airspace. However, Japan’s fleet has limitations if the balloons are above the expected operating altitude, for which special training and equipment are required. The Chinese called the remarks a groundless accusation without conclusive evidence.
 
Philippines: Chinese coast guards accused of using military-grade lasers
On 14 February, the Philippines accused Chinese coastguards of using ‘military grade laser light’ that temporarily blinded the Philippines crew. The Phillipines claimed that the Chinese coast guards were only 150 yards away from Filipino vessel and termed it a “dangerous manoeuvre." The Philippines coast guard accused the Chinese vessel of deliberately blocking them and a clear violation of the law. The US has condemned Chinese action as aggressive. 
 
South Asia
India: Rohingya boat reaches Andamans from Bangladesh
On 13 February, 69 Rohingyas on a boat named “Ma-Babar Doa” reached Andaman and Nicobar Islands. They had fled the relief camps in Bangladesh and were on their way to Indonesia when the boat drifted due to bad weather and ran out of fuel. According to the officials, the boat reached the Malacca jetty at Car Nicobar and food and water were provided to the people.
 
Afghanistan: Amid Taliban’s absent security strategy,  ISIL-K, Al-Qaeda and TTP enjoying freedom of movement, says UN Report
On 14 February, the UN in its 31st report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (ISIL, Al-Qaida) stated that Afghanistan continues to remain the primary threat of terrorism for Central and South Asia due to groups such as the ISIL-K, Al-Qaeda and Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan enjoying greater freedom of movement in the country owing to the absence of an effective Taliban security strategy. The report said, “It originates from groups including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant- Khorasan (ISIL-K), Al-Qaeda, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, as well as ETIM/TIP (Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement/Turkistan Islamic Party), Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad Group, Khatiba Imam al-Bukhari, Khatiba al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, Jamaat Ansarullah and others. These groups enjoy greater freedom of movement in Afghanistan owing to the absence of an effective Taliban security strategy.”
 
Central Asia, Middle East, and Africa
Armenia-Azerbaijan: PM Pashinyan proposes a demilitarized zone around Nagorno-Karabakh
On 15 February, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan proposed the creation of a demilitarized zone (DMZ) around Nagorno-Karabakh with international guarantees. He made this proposal during a cabinet meeting stating that they have proposed for the DMZ in the later draft sent to Azerbaijan and the OSCE Minsk Group. He said, “The creation of a demilitarized zone around Nagorno-Karabakh with international guarantees has been proposed, as a result of which Nagorno-Karabakh may not need a defence army of that scale. This proposal is still valid, I think.” Previously, PM Pashinyan proposed a DMZ in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi, during a meeting with President Vladimir Putin and President Ilham Aliyev.
 
Libya: At least 73 migrants presumed dead after a shipwreck
On 15 February, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that at least 73 migrants were presumed dead after a shipwreck at the Libyan coast. So far, 11 bodies have been recovered by the Libyan Red Crescent and police. The ship was carrying migrants to Europe through the route that IOM describes as "the world's deadliest migratory sea crossing." According to IOM, more than 130 people have died this year alone while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
 
Eritrea: President accuses the US of supporting Tigray rebels
On 13 February, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki accused the US of supporting the Tigray rebels during the Ethiopia-Tigray conflict. He claimed that the peace deal between the federal government and the Tigray rebels was rushed by the US to halt the rebels from losing their ground. Additionally, for the first time President Afwerki admitted that thousands of people died during the conflict. Previously, he denied the reports of war crimes committed by Eritrean troops which fought alongside the Ethiopian federal forces during the conflict.
 
Burkina Faso: At least 12 civilians killed in armed men attack
On 13 February, BBC reported that at least 12 civilians were killed in an attack by armed men in northern Burkina Faso. Residents of the village told a French news agency that armed men on motorbikes stormed the village and looted animals and goods. Assailants are assumed to be members of an Islamist group that has forced thousands to flee their homes in Burkina Faso and in neighbouring Mali and Niger.
 
Nigeria: Protests over shortage of cash
On 15 February, BBC reported that the frustrated Nigerian public have taken to the streets over the scarcity of cash following the central bank's decision to scrap old notes and replace them with new notes that are yet to reach the public. A regional newspaper reported that protesters attacked banks and destroyed ATM machines. Two people are feared dead after the protest turned violent. Roads were blocked with burning tyres and banks and other businesses were shut in Ibadan city following the violent protests.
 
The UK: accused of crimes against humanity over occupation of Chagos island
On 15 February, Human Rights Watch accused the UK of crimes against humanity over its refusal to allow a group of islanders to return to Chagos archipelago. The HRW said that reparations should be paid to generations that were affected by the decision to depopulate the island during the colonial times. However, the UK Foreign Office with "deep regret" said that it would "categorically reject the characterization of events" as crimes against humanity. The HRW report comes as the UK is facing severe international criticism for holding on to what it calls as "British Indian Ocean Territory" despite the UN's International Court of Justice’s ruling that  that British occupation of the Island is illegal.

Europe and the Americas
Russia: Moscow demands UN probe into Nord Stream blasts
On 16 February, lawmakers of the Russian State Duma unanimously voted to adopt an appeal to the UN demanding a probe into the September sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines. They describe the incident as a, “crime committed by the US.” The vote comes after an expose was published in The Washington Post by a veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, revealing the role of US and its NATO ally Norway cooperating to develop a plan and destroy the pipelines. State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said: “Just think about it: a terrorist act aimed against Russia, Germany, the Netherlands, and France. The USA, shamelessly, brought it into motion, with President Biden publicly endorsing it.” He also noted how the countries involved in the incident were “working on instructions from both the CIA and the US.”
 
Europe: EU launches pilot projects in Romania and Bulgaria to curb irregular migration
On 10 February, the European Commission and the EU member states’ leaders launched two pilot projects in Romania and Bulgaria to curb irregular migration. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the first project will “offer an integrated package of mobile and stationary infrastructure, from cars to cameras and watchtowers to electronic surveillance.” The second project will be launched with the support of Europol police and Frontex to ensure registration at external borders, fast and fair asylum repatriations and practices. These projects are expected to protect EUs external borders and control irregular migration and will be financed by national and EU budgets. Along with the two projects the EU countries’ leaders also agreed to recognize the decisions on deportations for faster repatriations.
 
Europe: Eight EU countries demand to strengthen reforms on the EU asylum system
On 8 February, Denmark, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Slovakia, Greece, Malta, and Austria leaders demanded stronger reforms to the EU asylum system and curb “irregular migration.” The eight countries’ leaders wrote to the European Commission and the European Council chiefs to create a harmonised EU asylum framework to look into all key migratory routes. It also called for the introduction of tougher policies for reparation and agreements with “third countries.”
 
Colombia: Second round of peace talks with ELN rebels resume
On 13 February, peace talks between the government and National Liberation Army (ELN) had resumed in Mexico City after a new round of talks were launched in December. The talks were resumed after the ELN, contrary to the government’s claims of a ceasefire, denied that any agreement had been concluded in December. The ELN is the largest remaining rebel group in Colombia; meanwhile, the government announced that it had agreed to informal ceasefires with four rebel groups.
 
Mexico: Cuban migrants’ relatives to go through a faster visa process
On 15 February, Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department announced that from April, Mexico would expedite visa applications of Cubans with relatives in the country. For this, special visa appointments would be held at the Mexican Consulate in Havana. The AP News reported that amid “deteriorating economic conditions and political dissent,” many Cubans were entering Mexico to reach the US border.
 
The US: Pentagon working towards declassifying "secret strategy" on defending and protecting on-orbit satellites
On 14 February, the US Defense Department's space policy office revealed that they were working on a draft of a congressionally mandated report explaining how the US will defend satellites in orbit. It has been known for a while that the DoD has a top-secret space defence strategy for the US and the Congress wants a version of it to be unclassified, to explain to the public the threats facing US satellites and what can be done in response. While the US has continued to advocate for "norms of responsible behaviour” in outer space, its military is expected to move forward with the development of new constellations to add resilience to current systems. “We need to defend our systems if deterrence fails,” said John Plumb, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy.


About the authors
Harini Madhusudan and Akriti Sharma are Doctoral Scholars at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS. Avishka Ashok, Abigail Fernandez, Apoorva Sudhakar and Padmashree Anandan are Project Associates at NIAS. Anu Maria Joseph is a Research Assistants at NIAS. Femy Francis is a Research Intern at NIAS. Madhura Mahesh is an Independent Scholar in Bangalore. Nithyashree RB is a Postgraduate Scholar at Stella Maris College, Chennai.

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